Let’s stop telling young people to find their passion and start telling them to find a job. The work you do in the world is not supposed to make a fulfilled individual; it’s supposed to make you an employed individual.
We do a disservice to our young people when we encourage them to believe that the world will reward them financially for something that it didn’t ask for and doesn’t want.
We’ve been telling them since they were toddlers to follow their own paths. Of course they believed it. That these paths often lead to the couch, the mall and the nurse’s office seems not to deter them. They become convinced that eventually they will find not only a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but nirvana (or at least an early vinyl copy of Nirvana that they could sell on eBay).
We too often tell the impressionable young that if they’re passionate enough about a topic or activity, they’ll be recognized, eventually, for their talents. Yet this is not generally, or even often, the case in actual life. Most people do not make a living by dancing, singing, acting, writing, drawing or designing apps. Most people do not write and direct highly successful films based on their first novels.
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Yes, some people do, but even many of the ones who arrive in the spotlight have, or have had, day jobs and regular work. They too have to support themselves between projects unless they marry rich or come from families that own air and mineral rights (and remember that many who appear to have achieved success on their own have instead inherited it).
Instead, most of us will need to show up at a job on a regular basis. Nobody said it’s easy. One of my favorite young women called me after landing an excellent full-time position in a major city. I was surprised when I heard the lack of enthusiasm in her voice. She’d been a fine undergraduate and then gone on to train for precisely the field in which she was now employed.
When I asked her what was wrong, she said, “I worked eight hours a day for five days last week.”
“And?” I asked.
“And now I’ll have to do that for the rest of my life.” She sounded shocked. It was exciting to get the job, but having and doing the job? We didn’t necessarily prepare her for that. Where did the passion go?
Let’s put passion in its place, or at least remind ourselves of its origin: The Latin word “pati” meant “suffer,” and that’s why the early church and Mel Gibson referred to “the passion of the Christ.”
Passion was originally synonymous with agony and martyrdom; it was twinned with endurance and fervency. It was not something you sought but something you could not overcome.
Gradually, passion became a word people used when discussing any intense desire, meaning it was associated with sex, which makes sense. But during the last three decades or so, the term passion has become synonymous with the idea of enthusiasm and eagerness. We’ve gone from believing that passion is something you endure to imagining that a passion is something you indulge and should seek.
Ambition is not passion; affection is not the same as a willingness to suffer affliction.
The ability to do good, fine and useful work does not depend on passion. By definition, passion passes — it must, because it cannot be withstood or else it would consume the one at its center. But we must work for the world to continue, let alone improve.
Work depends on character. It depends on commitment. It depends on self-respect. In “To Be of Use,” poet Marge Piercy writes, “I want to be with people who submerge/ in the task, who go into the fields to harvest/ and work in a row and pass the bags along,” who “move in a common rhythm/ when the food must come in or the fire be put out.”
Let’s remember Piercy’s words ourselves, no matter what our age. Here’s to being part of the common rhythm, the world’s heartbeat, in our work.
Happy Labor Day.